The secret is in the milk.
“A lot of it comes from steaming the milk correctly, to be honest, having a good canvas in the first place. That comes from me doing coffee for years and years beforehand,” Michael Breach of BaristArt told SYFY WIRE.
A few hours before Breach was set to go onstage at San Diego Comic-Con and perform his latte-based art for cosplayers and con-goers, I sat down at a diner counter craving a greasy-spoon breakfast and a pot of coffee. Breach turned to me and introduced himself upon catching sight of the highlighter-yellow SYFY logo on my lanyard. His face was unfamiliar, but after he pulled up his Instagram account, I knew exactly who he was. Or, more accurately, I knew his work. There’s a good chance you also know his work too, if you’ve spent any time on Tumblr or Instagram in the past seven years.
Breach is that guy — that barista guy who makes often-alarmingly realistic art in latte foam. You’ve probably seen his various Harry Potter interpretations, the comic book characters, the celebrities, or maybe his more recent 3D takes on everything from fan-favorite characters to food.
Each work of coffee-based art only takes a few minutes at a time, but it took Breach a lifetime of practice to become accidentally viral-worthy.
“It's almost like I've inadvertently been grooming myself to do this one job my whole life,” Breach says. “I grew up drawing photos, drawing pictures for people. [During] indoor recess, I was the chubby kid with the group around him watching me draw all the Street Fighter characters and stuff.”
Breach made his first latte in 2003. In 2010, he moved to New York City and found work as a barista in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. Bushwick, a relatively recently gentrified area that attracts artists and 20-something young professionals just moving to the city, was the perfect place for Breach to combine his passion for drawing with his full-time gig.
While working at the cafe at Milk Studios, a photography business in Chelsea, in 2011, he started testing out small works of art in the milk foam he’d become so familiar with and perfected over the years — hearts, different color combinations, and simple visual puns to make his coworkers and customers laugh. That same year, he made an Instagram account as a way to put all his work in one place. Plus, he figured, if his customers liked his art, maybe some people online would too.
They liked it. A lot.
Some representatives from Tumblr just happened to come into Milk Studios one afternoon and, upon seeing what Breach could do, asked if he’d audition to be part of the Tumblr Spotlight, which promotes various artists from across the blogsite.
“So the video we did on Tumblr Spotlight went viral — like viral viral,” Breach says. “A week later, I'm on Good Morning America, I'm on the Today Show, I'm on Rachael Ray, I'm on like every show.”
And not too long after his work blew up on Tumblr, some folks at Instagram reached out to tell Breach the site was making him a suggested user. Within months, Breach had amassed 20,000 followers, a staggering number in 2011 (Instagram launched in October 2010). Now, in 2018, Breach boasts over 91,500 Instagram followers and has partnered with film and television studios, appeared on countless talk shows, and traveled around the world to perform at conventions and music festivals.
Not too bad for a guy who was sleeping on his friend’s couch.
Breach rarely practices specific designs or characters. He focuses more on technique. On “lab days,” during which he tests out colors, foam temperatures, mixing techniques, and the best way to make a design pop, Breach can spend the entire day hulled up in his Bushwick apartment. The toughest days are when nothing seems to be working out. Frustrated, Breach will power through like any artist dedicated to their craft.
He also has to think about his fans, who delight at regular updates to his Insta account and revel in new techniques. Something about the rare combination of two common loves — coffee and fandom — strikes the core of Breach’s fans. Plus, it’s pretty cool.
At D23 2018, Breach drew one of the Frozen men and, he says, con-goers “actually screamed” as if the character had been made flesh before their eyes. It’s the kind of enthusiasm Breach is used to witnessing online in the form of caps-locked comments and Tumblr tags, but to have a live crowd react so viscerally to colors and lines in latte foam has taken some getting used to.
“I'm sure if I did a picture of one of those boy bands or something, it'd be the same reaction,” Breach says.
That world-renowned brands and even celebrities looking to hire him are sliding into Breach’s DMs (singer Joe Jonas of DNCE and formerly of The Jonas Brothers messaged Breach asking him to perform at his birthday party) is still strange. Breach is a truly unique artist reaping the truly unique rewards of internet fame. When Nescafe is knocking down your door to send you to Australia and Prada asks for its logo rendered in espresso, what’s a barista with a love for latte foam to do? When you’ve never been out of the country before and a music festival in South Africa wants you to perform, that’s not really something you say no to.
Despite the puns, at the end of the day, Breach is an artist. “I'm looking at this as just a medium, I'm not looking at this in any other way. This is the medium I was given — I have to do the best with it that I possibly can, stretch it to its limit,” Breach says. “I'm always driving to one-up myself just to keep up there and keep it relevant to myself and everyone around...
“So when I do one on stage, it's kinda like a karate match; they train for years battling, but all you're seeing is two minutes of it.”